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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Study Guide


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Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University explains the themes in Sophocles's play Antigone.

Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Themes


Laws of Gods versus Laws of Mortals

Creon orders Polyneices's body to remain unburied and without any funeral rites, which is a direct disobedience of the gods' will that bodies be given proper honor and rites upon death; to do anything other is to defy their wishes. Creon believes that the only way his new citizens will respect him is if he upholds the laws he creates. Antigone, on the other hand, believes that Creon's law is unjust, and she honors the gods by honoring their law and burying her brother properly. She claims, "My honours for the dead must last much longer than for those up here," meaning that her loyalty is greater to the gods and her family than to the ruler of her city-state. Creon ultimately comes to realize that his law has only served to anger the gods, who have the final say in such matters. They punish him with his own son's death.

Devotion versus Duty

From the beginning it is clear that Antigone has an unbending devotion to family and to the gods. This devotion surpasses any sense of civic duty to the leader of her state or his laws. Her sister, Ismene, illustrates the internal struggle that arises when spiritual devotion is against loyalty to government. And Creon, the source of Ismene's call to civic duty, is as unbending in his value for civics as Antigone is in her devotion to the gods. Creon believes that to disobey his laws is to set yourself up for a just punishment, and this is his rationale for sentencing Antigone to death. He becomes blind to familial and divine devotion in his lust to secure his people's civic loyalty to him.

Courage and Conviction

The courage of Antigone is based upon her convictions. She stands firm in the face of her tragic fate and against Creon's edicts and blatant disdain for women. She fearlessly faces death because she is sure of her position.

Antigone's fate reflects the tragic curse of her father, Oedipus. Even as the Chorus applauds Antigone for trying to take her fate into her own hands, it understands that she ultimately will pay for her father's ordeal. Ancient Greek audiences would not have missed the certainty of such a fate and would recognize the courage required to proceed with conviction in the face of it.

Creon's laws mean nothing to Antigone when they fly in the face of her devotion to family and to the gods. Ismene's warning to remember her place as a woman or risk punishment is telling when later Creon seems even more determined to punish Antigone when he demands he will "never let some woman beat us down." Antigone, who has been called an "early feminist hero," scoffs at such statements, fearless in the face of anything she views as unjust.

Flexibility versus Stubbornness

Neither Antigone nor Creon shows flexibility in the play. While Antigone's inflexibility may be based more on strong convictions than on stubbornness, Creon's stubbornness is hard to deny. Above all else he demands to be obeyed, even when he places himself above the gods. Even though Teiresias offers Creon a warning, telling him there is still time to set things right when he cautions him that his "luck is once more on Fate's razor edge," Creon remains stubborn in his steadfastness to civic duty. By showing some flexibility Creon might have saved himself and his family—but Creon stalls for too long, and the warning becomes his fate. He loses everyone he loves due to his arrogance and hubris, and even though he hopes the gods have "set things right again" in the end, it's too late—the wheels of fate have already been set in motion.

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